It was the transatlantic steamer Archtor that first noticed something was wrong. On its voyage to the port of Leith from Philadelphia, the Archtor passed the lighthouse on the Flannan Isles on the night of the 15th of December 1900 and the crew saw that its light was off. After docking in Leith three days later, the news was passed on to the Northern Lighthouse Board that something was amiss on Flannan. A mystery that is explored in the 2019 film, The Vanishing.
The Board dispatched the lighthouse relief tender ship Hesperus to investigate. Arriving at the island on Boxing Day, the ship’s captain, Jim Harvie, sounded his horn and sent up a flare, hoping to alert the three lighthouse keepers, James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, and William MacArthur. There was no response. Disembarking from the Hesperus, relief lighthouse keeper Joseph Moore set off up the one hundred and sixty steep steps to the lighthouse. Three giant black birds perched on the cliffs above him cast their beady eyes on his progress.
Reaching the lighthouse compound and entering the living quarters, Moore noticed that the clock on the kitchen wall had stopped, the table was set for a meal that had never been eaten and a chair had been toppled over. A canary in a cage was the only sign of life. Returning to the eastern landing, Moore reported his findings to the captain of the Hesperus. Harvie sent another two sailors to shore and they and Moore began looking for signs of life.
After a thorough search of the lighthouse complex turned up nothing but a set of oilskins - suggesting one of the keepers had ventured out in just his shirtsleeves - the men turned their attention to the landing platform on the west side of the island. Here, there was plenty of evidence that the island had recently been hit by a massive storm. A supply box had been smashed open and its contents strewn across the ground despite being over a hundred feet above sea level. Iron railings on the side of a path had been bent and twisted out of shape, part of a railway track had been torn from its concrete moorings and a huge rock weighing more than a ton had been displaced. Turf had also been ripped up from the tops of the cliffs two hundred feet above sea level. There was no sign of the three keepers.
So, what had happened? 'Poor fellows, they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that,' was Harvie’s conclusion in a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board after the Hesperus returned to port. Harvie had left Moore and three sailors behind to tend to the light and continue the search. They scoured the islands for the three missing men but found nothing.
Arriving on the island on December 29, the board’s superintendent, Robert Muirhead, began an investigation into the keepers’ disappearance. Muirhead knew all three of the missing men well. Examining the oilskin that had been left behind, he concluded it belonged to William MacArthur. After going over the wreckage on the western landing, Muirhead speculated that Marshall and Ducat must have headed out into the storm to try to secure the equipment stored there. When they did not return, Muirhead surmised that MacArthur must have ventured out to try to find them.
'From evidence which I was able to procure,' Muirhead concluded in his official report, 'I was satisfied that the men had been on duty up till dinner time on Saturday the 15th of December, that they had gone down to secure a box in which the mooring ropes, landing ropes etc. were kept, and which was secured in a crevice in the rock about 110 ft (34 m) above sea level, and that an extra large sea had rushed up the face of the rock, had gone above them, and coming down with immense force, had swept them completely away.'
But as far as the public was concerned, Muirhead’s report wasn’t the end of the story. Speculation was soon rife. Theories more suited to the Middle Ages were soon doing the rounds, such as the men being gobbled up by a giant sea serpent or whisked away by a huge seabird. One theory had the men leave the island by boat to escape debts, while another had them spirited away by the skeletal crew of a ghost ship. Some people even thought that the men had been kidnapped by foreign spies.
More doubt was cast on the official investigation with the emergence of a logbook supposedly containing several baffling entries between the 12th and 15th of December. In the first entry, Marshall is supposed to have written that a great storm the likes of which he had never seen before had hit the island. He continued that Ducat was unusually quiet when the storm hit and MacArthur – a big, burly man not known to have much of a sensitive side – was weeping.
A second entry has all three men praying in the eye of the monstrous storm, and a third and final entry, supposedly written on the 15th, states that the storm had passed and all was now calm. On hearing about the existence of these logbook entries, many questioned the idea that the men had been swept out to sea. If anyone had died, surely whoever wrote the 15th of December entry would have mentioned this? There had to be another explanation.
There was indeed another explanation. The logbook entries were injected into the story several years after Marshall, Ducat and MacArthur disappeared. There is no evidence they ever existed, as the Fortean Times journalist Mike Dash discovered after carrying out his own investigation.
So, dismissing both the fake logbook entries and the fanciful tales of sea serpents and ghost ships, what are we left with? Three theories have emerged over the years that seek to explain the men’s disappearance.
The first is based on the character of William MacArthur. MacArthur was by all accounts an ill-tempered man who was quick to settle an argument with his fists. It has been speculated that he could have started a fight up on the western landing which led to all three men falling to their deaths from the cliffs.
The second theory is that one of the men – again, probably MacArthur - murdered the other two, ditched their bodies into the sea and then threw himself off the cliffs. While both theories add a level of bloodthirsty juiciness to the mystery, there is no evidence that either a fight or murder took place. It is of course perfectly possible for men in confined quarters to rub each other up the wrong way to the point where they snap and all hell breaks loose (especially when one of them has a history of violence), but without bodies or crime scenes to examine, these two theories will forever remain mere supposition.
The much more plausible explanation is that Marshall and Ducat were swept away while trying to secure the supplies and equipment on the west landing. When his colleagues failed to return, MacArthur headed out to find them and he, too, perished in the storm. Why anyone would head out on such a dangerous expedition when they could have stayed safe in the lighthouse can be explained by the fact Marshall had previously been fined five shillings for losing his equipment in a previous gale. As a family man, losing five shillings in 1900 was no laughing matter, so it’s no surprise if securing equipment was more important to Marshall than his personal safety.
Of course, the real reason for the disappearance of James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and William MacArthur will probably never be known. However these three men met their fate on that cold December night back in 1900 - be it by accident, misadventure or design - the Flannan Isles Mystery remains one of the most baffing episodes in Scottish maritime history.